Are the upheavals in the Arab world revolutions? Uprisings? Revolts?
Perhaps all these terms are misnomers, because they imply an end point, a moment when the event will be over, its historical task finished, if not completed. It is increasingly apparent, however, that the Arab world is witnessing not discrete events, but the advent of a new era in which participatory politics has taken on much more immediate relevance. No end point has come into view — and none is necessary.
Timur Kuran, The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East (Princeton, 2011).
Readers looking at the title of Timur Kuran’s new book might be forgiven for thinking it had come from some pre-Orientalism time warp where it was still possible to make essentialist generalizations about Islamic law and Middle Eastern backwardness. And they would be mostly correct.
There are two political-intellectual prisms through which the recurrent conflagrations of the modern Middle East are conventionally seen. One casts the region’s stubborn ills as internally caused — by the outsize role of religion in public life, the persistence of primordial identities like sect and tribe, and the centuries-long accretion of patriarchal norms. The other espies the root of all evils in external interference, from European colonialism to the creation of Israel and assorted ventures of the imperial United States.
The revolts sweeping the Arab Middle East and North Africa in early 2011 have been characterized as uprisings against neoliberal economic policies as well as authoritarian rule. But while there is widespread agreement on the political dimension of the revolts, there has been some confusion regarding the role played by economic grievances. The confusion is due not merely to the pace of events, but also to the fact that the region’s actual economic record is somewhat contested.
At first glance, there’s a clear need for expanding the Web beyond the Latin alphabet, including in the Arabic-speaking world. According to the Madar Research Group, about 56 million Arabs, or 17 percent of the Arab world, use the Internet, and those numbers are expected to grow 50 percent over the next three years.
Many think that an Arabic-alphabet Web will bring millions online, helping to bridge the socio-economic divides that pervade the region.
“America will stand with the allies of freedom to support democratic movements in the Middle East and beyond, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” With these soaring words in the 2005 State of the Union Address, President George W. Bush swore to overturn the long-standing US policy of backing friendly dictators in countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
At the May 20-22 World Economic Forum in Jordan, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Cheney reiterated this “transformational vision” to the assembled Arab political and business leaders. For 60 years, said the vice president’s daughter, Washington had mistakenly backed the Arab status quo in exchange for stability—but no longer.
Pundits on the right have been quick to say the Bush administration deserves credit for sparking democratic rumblings across the Middle East. They note the popular protests against Syrian influence in Lebanon and Egyptian President Husni Mubarak ’s pledge to allow multiple candidates to run in the presidential elections, as well as local elections in Saudi Arabia. These events, they argue, show that the war in Iraq is realizing its true purpose. Should critics of the invasion of Iraq now concede that they were wrong? Voices on the left and other critics of the war tell us no. All they see is hypocrisy.
It is no exaggeration to say that Bernard Lewis is the most influential writer on Middle Eastern history and politics in the United States today. Not only has he authored more than two dozen books on the Middle East, he trained large numbers of two subsequent generations of historians of the region. Lewis is a public figure of the first order, publishing widely read articles on Middle Eastern politics. He is perhaps the only scholar of the Middle East to be well-known outside the field — most academics would be hard pressed to name another historian of the Middle East or the Islamic world, excepting colleagues at their own university. This is ironic, since, as we will see, his interpretation of Islamic history is essentialist and ahistorical. Furthermore, Lewis is greatly respected in US policymaking circles. His opinions on policy matters have been sought by governments run by both major American political parties, and by all reports have been especially heeded by the administration of George W. Bush. An August 29 op-ed by Lewis in the Wall Street Journal concisely states positions which are articles of faith for the Bush administration’s neo-conservatives — notably that the problems of post-war Iraq are caused by anti-American fascist or Islamist forces seeking to defeat Western Christendom, and that the Westernized former banker Ahmad Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress are the best candidates to govern a stable Iraq in the future.
On January 7, 2000, Lisa Hajjar spoke with Abdallahi An-Na'im, a lawyer from Sudan and a prominent human rights scholar and activist. He is professor of law at Emory University. Transcription was provided by Zachary Kidd and funded by the Morehouse College sociology department.
Can you highlight some of the factors that contributed to the development of a human rights movement in the Arab world?
The last decade has seen multi-party competition for elected legislatures initiated or expanded in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Kuwait, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority. Executive authority in most cases remains an uncontested, if not completely unelected, post. Nevertheless, incumbent rulers invariably tout these legislative elections as evidence of domestic legitimacy, often anointing their countries as “on the road to democracy” in their wake.
Salim Nasr, a Lebanese sociologist, is a Ford Foundation program officer in the Middle East and North Africa office in Cairo. He spoke with Lisa Hajjar in New York City on May 29, 1997.
How would you assess Middle East studies as it is undertaken by scholars based in the region?
Ghanem Bibi is co-founder and coordinator of the Arab Resource Collective based in Nicosia. ARC generates Arabic-language resources for use in community health and childhood development projects, and serves as a networking resource for Arab NGOs. Julie Peteet spoke with him in August 1994, shortly after an Arab NGO preparatory meeting in Lebanon for the March 1995 UN Social Summit in Copenhagen. Joe Stork spoke with him further in early November 1994.
What was the range of organizations attending the regional preparatory meeting?
Kanan Makiya, Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising and the Arab World (W. W. Norton, 1993).
The absence of basic human rights and democratic freedoms in the Arab world for most of the post-colonial era, and the failure of the region’s inhabitants to successfully contest this deficit, has appropriately come to be known as a crisis of Arab political culture. That this crisis is not an abstraction but is excruciatingly real was amply demonstrated during the 1990-1991 Gulf crisis. It is this important theme that Kanan Makiya attempts to address.
The current debate on the compatibility of Arab-Muslim culture with Enlightenment ideals of rationality, democracy and tolerance is curiously devoid of historical reference. In the Arab world, the debates on democracy and progress regained momentum during the late 1970s, when the Islamist movements began to attract a wide spectrum of people who had hitherto been considered the “natural” pool from which the left would draw support. Recognition of the need for radical change in their societies by Arab intellectuals, and a resurgent attraction to liberal democracy, is not a byproduct of the so-called new world order. Nor is it an intellectual property to which any writer can lay claim.
There was a short period, just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the shape of the emerging post-Cold war system seemed quite clear. The disintegration of the Eastern Bloc would be complemented by further economic and political integration of Western Europe according to the Maastricht Treaty timetable. Other new blocs, like the North American Free Trade Area, were in the making. The whole system was to be regulated by a US-dominated order based on such international institutions as the UN Security Council, the World Bank and a revised General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).
The “collapse of communism” in 1989 and the victory over Iraq in 1991 sparked a wave of triumphal declarations by Western pundits and analysts who believed that all “viable systemic alternatives to Western liberalism” had now been exhausted and discredited. Some then tried to sketch a foreign policy appropriate to the “new world order.”  A consistent theme of this “new thinking” was that the peoples of the developing countries must now acknowledge that liberal democracy is the only plausible form of governance in the modern world. Accordingly, support for democratization should henceforth be a central objective of US diplomacy and foreign assistance. 
Hisham Milhem is the Washington correspondent of the Beirut daily al-Safir. Born in Lebanon, Milhem has lived and worked in Washington since 1976. Joe Stork and Sally Ethelston spoke with him in Washington in September 1992.
What are the salient features of the power structure of the Arab media? Who controls it? Who sets the tone?
Any generalization is problematic. We’ve been involved in journalism in Lebanon-Syria and Egypt for more than a century. That is why the Lebanese, the Egyptians and the Palestinians have been predominant in the Arab press.